Our Insane and Destructive Thoughts: Part II-Their Purpose

Stan Goldberg, PhD

Sometimes answers to questions come from the strangest places. For example; who would think to look at films to identify the purpose of our insane and destructive thoughts?

In Part I of this three-part series, I maintained one form of our insane thoughts is the creation of  “what if” scenarios about a less than pleasant event. For example, you remember a particularly snide comment about you and you remained silent or produced a not so stellar response. While the event lasted less than thirty seconds, you’re reliving it months after it occurred. In Part II, we’ll look at the purpose of these thoughts by examining a seemingly unrelated area: why some films have a universal following and a long shelf-life.

Lessons About Destructive Thoughts From Films

Many of the most successful films have a commonality that crosses age groups, gender, and culture: good over bad, justice over injustice, revenge over acceptance. I often wondered why movies of this type were so successful even when the writing was terrible, the actors were less than competent and the story line ridiculous.

And then I remember as child sitting in a dark theater in a small town on a Saturday afternoon cheering the Lone Ranger and Tonto.  Since 1949 when they first appeared on television, they never killed anyone, but rather handed them over to the sheriff for justice. Imagine, correcting the wrongs of the West for sixty-six years and doing it with compassion! Not very realistic, but that’s not necessary if the goal is to tap into a basic human need—justice.

The Lone Ranger dedicated his life to rectifying wrongs committed against helpless victims. It was a theme registering with audiences whether they were workers laboring in factories paid pennies by the piece or a young boy feeling the discrimination of bigoted adults. No matter how bad things were in the past, they will be rectified in the present or future.

Nobody wants to feel helpless or taken advantage of, yet these are experiences we have throughout our lives. Unfortunately, the worst and most irreconcilable ones stay with us for years, as did the rejection for the woman in hospice I wrote about in Part I.


When an event threatens our body’s existence it fights back (e.g., external injury, ingestion of a noxious material, etc.). The term used to describe this in biology is “homeostasis.” It’s the body’s attempt to regain stability. I think the same applies to our mind.

We want to be treated humanely, fairly, and justly–that’s our nature. Our mind tries to rectify the past when one of these principles are violated. One way it does this is by creating scenarios of what should have been done so a different outcome would have occurred.

Limited Value of “What If” Thoughts

While I think “what if” thoughts are natural, they have limited value in reducing or eliminating painful emotions. How many times must you relive a painful event and revise it before its impact is reduced, such as not asking for forgiveness from a person you wronged before she died? I’m sure many of my psychologist friends would maintain the first step in getting over an emotional trauma is talking about it. Maybe, but in the Part III of this series I’ll suggest other ways to reduce “what if” repetitive thoughts, and prevent future ones from occurring.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


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